Exploring sublimely ridiculous Antarctica
Portadown group show ‘Crystalline’ probes Antarctica’s seductive landscapes
It’s twice the size of Australia but Antarctica is by comparison a terra incognita, with an average, and tentative, human population of just a few thousand, made up of scientific researchers and “expedition tourists”. It remains apart because it is so remote and inhospitable. The strongest Irish links, historically, are probably the early 20th century expeditions led by Ernest Shackleton and of course Tom Crean’s extraordinarily heroic role in Captain Scott’s tragically ill-fated 1911 attempt to reach the South Pole and Shackleton’s subsequent Endurance expedition.
Nearly all of Antarctica is covered by a vast ice sheet (although there is some concern about the melt rate of the ice in west Antarctica). Consequently there are hundreds of hidden, subglacial lakes distributed throughout the land mass.
Some have been discovered only relatively recently. These ice-sealed lakes are obviously fascinating for researchers. They promise clues about the origins of life, for example, and its capacity for survival in extreme environments, on Earth and elsewhere.
The US, Russia and Britain have all mounted efforts to drill through the thick surface ice and obtain samples from the lakes beneath.
To coincide with the recent British expedition to explore Lake Ellsworth in west Antarctica, the Millennium Court Arts Centre devised a group exhibition, Crystalline, on “the twin themes of scientific endeavour and the landscape of Antarctica”, a landscape which, above and beneath the surface, “has proved unfalteringly seductive to artists”.
The theme could have been devised with Dorothy Cross in mind. Her work often ventures into the curious, problematic terrain between art and science. She has also herself ventured as far as Antarctica. Her 2005 video of that name plunges us into the icy depths of the sea there, tracking divers at work.
It’s all the more disorientating because it’s screened in negative, without any explanatory framework. The reversal of tones transforms white snow and ice into black, fearsome masses and dark-suited divers become floating, ghostly presences.
Claire Muckian goes for a comparable reversal with her sculpture Lake-mountain, in which an inverted iceberg becomes a peak – or vice versa. Norwegian artist Jana Winderen uses only sound but uses it brilliantly, working with field recordings made deep within glaciers and in the sea, generating exceptionally spacious and atmospheric soundscapes.
Ruth le Gear’s two films, beautifully evocative of immense, stark, alien environments in which the human scale and time scale are rendered insignificant, stem from a residency near the opposite pole, in the Arctic Circle.